The embodiment of integrity—truthfulness and strong moral principles—form the foundation of leadership. People are drawn to leaders who are trustworthy because they are reliable, their words are confirmed in action, their motives are transparent, and words will be held in confidence when requested.
Over the last several years, I have been involved in numerous mergers, acquisitions, and partnership discussions, and trust was always carefully weighed in the decision process. If trust was lost between parties during due diligence or the negotiation, a business deal never occurred.
Moral principles—our definition of right and wrong and our guidelines for how we conduct ourselves—determine our character and how others perceive us. Consequently, our principles have a strong influence on our truthfulness. Some may feel a half-truth is morally sound, while others view this equally deceptive information as a lie. Like scientific data, behaviors follow trends and are highly correlated to moral principle and honesty. When either is off, decisions become sketchy and loyalties erode.
Unfortunately, financial gain can be achieved for people who exercise greed, narcissism, and exploitation, but it comes at a tremendous cost of loneliness and lack of respect in the community. Conversely, integrity sets the stage for both honor and success. Integrity is best illustrated here through several stories.
One of my mentors is a true class act, having high integrity. He is highly competent, is respected for his work, and keeps his word. He is the go-to guy for specific issues and retains a wealth of knowledge that facilitates problem-solving. He achieved numerous technical ladder promotions (equivalent to a VP) and financial success. Simultaneously, he is humbly aware of and transparent with his limitations. He values others and willfully acknowledges others’ support as a critical component to the success achieved. On several occasions, he’s provided constructive feedback to help me improve. The difference was that I felt he had my best interest in mind and was rooting for me to succeed. When I later went for a promotion, he stuck his neck out to support my cause. He is a person I work to emulate, and this is leadership at its best.
In many cases, integrity can be learned at a very young age. When I was twelve years old, I read a Guidepost article on human trafficking. I was horrified by the atrocities committed on young boys and girls, and I vowed I would do something one day if given the chance.
Fast-forward eighteen years. I went to the Philippines on a business trip, and on the last night of my stay I was enjoying karaoke with colleagues who worked for a supplier. It was innocent fun after a grueling three weeks of intense work. After a couple of hours, I was taken down to a room. I walked in and saw more than twenty women seated and smiling at me. I immediately walked out, upset by what I saw. Outside of the room, my host said I could pick one of the women. I hesitated and then said, “Yes, I want two.” This was my chance.
I went back in the room and picked two women who stood out to me. I felt terrible because the process was so degrading to the women. They came back to the karaoke room and enjoyed our company. For a moment in time, they were treated with decency rather than humiliation. The second woman I picked spent time with a colleague who also treated her well.
Toward the end of the night, my host said I could bring the woman back to my hotel and do whatever I wanted. I was encouraged to take full advantage of the situation sexually. It was my last night there, and no one would know. Again, I said yes, but had alternative plans.
I waited for her to get changed and watched her come down the stairs in a Minnie Mouse shirt. She was likely seventeen years old. We got in the car and I instructed my driver to take her home. I got to know her more during the long drive. She was a nursing student, but this job at the karaoke club provided food and shelter for her entire family. What she didn’t know is that my previous humanitarian work in the Philippines gave me access to a very reputable network to save prostitutes from human trafficking. I told her I would cover all her schooling costs and provide a living stipend. Since I sponsored another student in college in the Philippines, I was familiar with all the costs and had the means to help. I gave her my number and asked her to call.
When we arrived at her home, we exited the vehicle and I gave her a sizeable tip. She kissed me on the cheek and thanked me for treating her with dignity. She then walked into the shadows of the shanties, and I never heard from nor saw her again as she did not take my offer. It was crushing to think she would go right back to work the next day, but I knew I had made a difference for one night.
What I didn’t realize is that some of my female colleagues took notice that night at the karaoke club and thought I was just another chauvinistic pig looking to take advantage of young prostitutes. But when I reached out to one of them to help me find the woman I met and I told her the full story, she couldn’t stop thanking me.
Being authentic is closely tied to integrity and is equally important. It’s being the person you were designed to be and exercising your unique talents. Furthermore, it’s being real with yourself and others—eliminating fluff and sugarcoating from conversations and being frank, kind, and respectful. Authenticity is refreshing and highly sought after in leadership. And it is equally important to cultivate in your own life.
When I was a preteen, I wanted to be a Major League Baseball player. My team had just won the local little league championship, and I was an all-star catcher. The next year, reality started to set in when my body could not compete at the same level as the bigger kids, despite how hard I trained. A few years later, I made the junior varsity team but mostly played first base coach. After my sophomore year, I made a decision to be real with myself; baseball was not an option professionally.
Instead, I focused on my alternate passions and unique gifts. I was a capable artist, fascinated by product design and great at solving problems. I complemented this with my love for math and science. Although I was pursuing my passions and talents, it was not a simple walk in the park. I really struggled at times. I eventually dropped Advanced Placement (AP) science after doing poorly in biology. And at times, I even felt burned-out as an artist. However, I never gave up and persisted through these challenges, working extremely hard. It showed in the results. I achieved a perfect score on my AP art portfolio, and by my fourth semester in college, I had achieved a 4.0/4.0 in mechanical engineering even though over 50 percent of the class had dropped out. My success in technology continued into the corporate environment, where I was elected to the technical staff by my peers and the management team. The creativity I developed as an artist shined through in my quality design work.
However, after years on the job, I began questioning my path once again. I was bored in my work, felt undervalued, and was frustrated with limited raises and bonuses, despite adding significant value to the company by developing new products that were driving growth. Automotive sales were lagging in the markets, and maintaining profits resulted in tighter budgets. Somehow, though, the executives always got paid well.
I started thinking about moving to finance to explore something new. Their financial reward system was great and I was envious. Being an expert in research and analytical work, I thought it was a natural fit. I pondered it for a while and came to the same conclusion I did earlier on in life: I was made to be a technologist, and it was my passion. Secondly, pursuing a profession primarily for pay was a bad choice. Soon motivation would wane and interest would be lost. So I decided to stay put and find more interesting work in research and development (R&D).
In this pursuit, my passion began to expand into leadership. This led to management positions, culminating in my appointment as VP of Global R&D for a large corporation. I found my dream job through the merging of technology and leadership. However, the position that stretched my engineering and leadership skills the most was starting a small business from scratch and making it successful during the middle of a recession. This was truly gratifying, and being authentic paid off in my career pursuits.
It’s popular to think we can do whatever we put our minds to. We can, to an extent, but it doesn’t always mean we can guarantee success in our profession. Sometimes passions are best pursued as hobbies. I still enjoy baseball to this day through pickup games and as a spectator. However, when passion coexists with talent, it’s a great opportunity for a profession. For example, some people use their gifts in communication to pursue a career in sports through broadcasting, rather than athletics. It’s the place where their passion and talent intersect.
CALL TO ACTION: Three Steps You Can Take to Make Integrity and Authenticity Your Foundation
- Be true to yourself and others. Grab a piece of paper and write down a description of your interests and strengths. Only write what is absolutely true about you, not what others may want you to be. Think about your passions and what you are excited about.
This year, my daughter started kindergarten at a private school. At first, we considered for her to attend the highly rated public school, but my wife and I quickly learned the environment stifled the love of learning, exploration, and creativity at almost every corner. I brought my concerns to the local school board, state school board, superintendents, and governor to no avail. I was left with a bitter feeling that it was more about ratings and union needs, rather than the children.
Our private school is vastly different from the public school we considered. The curriculum is centered around cultivating creativity and exploration, loving the learning process, and developing moral values. The teachers have a passion for children and teaching. There is no pretending or just seeking a paycheck. This is not by coincidence. There is an enormous effort behind selection and retention. Teachers are true to themselves (pursuing their passion and talents) and true to their students (giving them their best). Teachers who do not meet these high standards are removed.
- Establish and adhere to moral and strategic principles. Thoughtfully consider your guiding principles, write them down, and refine them through reflection.
Here are several of my favorites that I live by:
- Make family and close friends a priority.
- Respect and value others and draw the best out of them.
- Strive to make excellent decisions efficiently even when no one is looking.
- Pursue passions and be creative, exhibiting a strong work ethic, letting it show in high-quality execution, and by giving back.
- Continuously learn by exploring, listening, reading, and doing.
- Lead a healthy lifestyle with ample rest and balance.
- Keep your word and commitments without padding schedules. How many times have you been promised one thing but were given another, or asked to have something completed in a rush, only to have it sit on the shelf for days or weeks untouched? This erodes trust.
Padding is a practice of adding so much time to schedules that anyone can do it. For example, say a project normally takes one month. Padding is giving yourself two months to cover anything that may go wrong when six weeks is more reasonable. Yes, your risk of failing to meet the schedule is lowered, but your integrity is compromised as well.
If you want to have others trust you and come back for repeated business, you need to keep your word and your commitments without excessive padding. Customers expect suppliers to be expeditious because time is money. Those who can drive high quality with shorter lead times will be most successful.
There was a fabrication shop at my previous employer. Their biggest annoyance was a colleague requesting a rush job only to let it sit unattended for days or weeks after they were called to pick it up. Alternatively, I always dropped what I was doing and picked up my work from the fabrication shop the same day or even within the hour it was completed. I often thanked the individual toolmakers, sent positive recommendations to supervisors, and dropped off donuts and coffee when deadlines were tight. I also returned after the end product was completed and showed the fabrication team how their work was utilized. It was amazing how keeping my word and showing a little appreciation motivated the fabrication team to jump through hoops to complete my jobs in an expeditious manner.